Sunday, 22 October 2017 19:58

Opinion - Budget motels create stumbling block for North Temple

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By Nigel Swaby

Salt Lake City’s vision for a “grand boulevard” on North Temple has yet to be realized after 10 years of plans, construction and hundreds of millions of dollars spent.

With nearby development such as the new stadium at the Utah State Fairpark, the new Jordan River Parkway bridge between 200 and 300 South, and plans to connect downtown to the fairgrounds with a Folsom Trail, North Temple feels like it is lagging behind.

The grand boulevard concept envisions narrower roads, colorful streets, art, pedestrian friendly pathways and an enticing choice of restaurants and businesses. The installation of the TRAX light-rail line to the airport narrowed the street and provided pedestrian transportation options. New market rate apartment buildings are popping up on the west end of North Temple and a few key businesses anchor the street further east, such as the ever-popular Red Iguana, Mestizo Coffeehouse, Leatherby’s and Rancho Markets.

Despite these improvements, glaring blight spoils the view. Littering the boulevard are several low-budget motels which serve as breeding grounds for criminal behavior.

Salt Lake City police call records of three North Temple motels – Econo Lodge, All Star Travel Motel and Gateway Inn – document the activity. So far in 2017, there were 190 calls to All Star Travel, 296 to the Econo Lodge and a disproportionate 750 calls to Gateway Inn. While some of the calls were hang-ups and miscellaneous, many involved crimes such as car prowls, burglary and numerous sex crimes including investigations concerning a child. Since January, 37 people were arrested at Gateway Inn for serious outstanding warrants. About two dozen were arrested at the other two.

The Gateway Inn across from the Jackson-Euclid TRAX stop at 819 W. North Temple is the most notorious. In 2017, police investigated dozens of physical altercations there, including 10 fights with large groups and others involving shootings, shots fired and stabbings. A gang-related shooting occurred in March of this year, and a drug lab was investigated in September. A murder on 800 West and North Temple served as a final straw before the launch of Operation Rio Grande in August.

These motels thrive on cash customers and have no shortage of guests. Groups of people mill around the front of the property at all hours of the day and night. The price point for the motels is alluring. For someone down on their luck, perhaps with poor credit, housing options are limited. On North Temple, temporary shelter can be found for as little as $40. While it seems cheap, add it up over a month and for 263 square feet, guests are paying $1200 a month. After taxes, a minimum wage job won’t cover the daily housing cost, so guests are forced to find something else to do to make money.

Salt Lake Police Department spokesman Greg Wilking said some of the motel owners have “acted as pimps” by suggesting to their guests how to come up with their daily rent money. This is the main reason City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall helped get a nuisance ordinance passed that holds motel owners responsible for some crimes taking place on their properties. (She represents District 5, which includes crime-ridden motels further south on State Street.) The penalties increase with each incident, escalating into a temporary business closure after four violations.

Community leaders are searching for solutions. A group of students from the University of Utah’s planning department conducted a study on the problem earlier this year. Two tactics stood out to the group’s professor, Ivis Garcia Zambrana: a city ordinance to limit the stays of guests to no more than thirty days and to place restrictions on the use of emergency housing vouchers at the motels.

The city has looked at buying some of the most troublesome locations but prices have gone up substantially. About a year and a half ago, the owner of Gateway Inn wanted $1.5 million to sell, according to the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City. At a meeting of concerned State Street businesses two months ago, Ballpark Community Council chair Bill Davis said the price tag is now six million.

Other possible tactics include enforcement of health code violations but both the city and county health departments are short on enforcement officials. Scheduled inspections have been delayed because of these shortages. The Gateway Inn has yet to be inspected this year according to a recent email from the public information office at Salt Lake County’s Health Department. Motels are inspected annually or when a specific complaint is called in.

State Rep. Sandra Hollins’ (D-Salt Lake City) district includes North Temple. She was also recently hired as the city’s homeless liaison. If the motels are disrupted, there’s concern about where displaced guests would go. Precious few housing options exist for those living in the margins of society, especially those with criminal histories. Building Salt Lake, a real estate publication, recently observed, “City officials estimate that the city needs to add nearly 7,500 affordable housing units to meet the city’s current housing demands.” Most of the current construction is for market rate housing.

The continued presence of these motels on North Temple block any meaningful growth in the area. The guests they attract are not just poor people desperate for shelter but criminals with active warrants and people who behave violently. The “grand boulevard” vision will remain in jeopardy so long as these motels continue to conduct business in the current manner.

Nigel Swaby is a Fairpark resident and currently serves as the chair of the River District Business Alliance.